David Harvey: The Crisis of Planetary Urbanisms

A essay by David Harvey from the catalogue for Uneven Growth – Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities – MoMA Exhibition 2014



In this June 26, 2013 file photo, demonstrators march toward the Mineirão stadium where a Confederations Cup semifinal soccer match will be played between Brazil and Uruguay in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Public approval of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s government has suffered a steep drop since protesters calling for a wide-range of reforms took to the streets all over Brazil in the past two weeks, according to Brazil’s first nationwide poll released since the unrest began. (AP Images/Felipe Dana)

On the night of June 20, 2013, more than a million people in some 388 Brazilian cities took to the streets in a massive protest movement. The largest of these protests, comprising more than 100,000 people, occurred in Rio de Janeiro and was met with significant police violence. For more than a year prior to this, sporadic protests had been occurring in various Brazilian cities. Led by a “Free Pass” movement that had long been agitating for free public transportation for students, the earlier protests were largely ignored. But by early June 2013, fare increases for public transportation sparked more widespread protests. Many other groups, including the black block anarchists, sprang to the defense of the “Free Pass” protestors and others who came under police attack. By June 13 the movement had morphed into a general protest against police repression, the failure of public services to match social needs, and the deteriorating quality of urban life. The huge expenditures of public resources to host mega-events such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games—to the detriment of the public interest but to the great benefit, it was widely understood, of corrupt construction and urban development interests—added to the discontent

The protests in Brazil came less than a month after thousands of people turned out on the streets of Turkey’s major cities, as anger over the redevelopment of the precious green space of Gezi Park in Istanbul as a shopping center, spread into a broader protest against the increasingly autocratic style of the government and the violence of the police response. Long-simmering discontent over the pace and style of urban transformation, including the wholesale eviction of populations from high-value land in inner-city locations added fuel to the protests. Diminished quality of life in Istanbul and other cities for all but the most affluent classes was clearly an important issue.

The broad parallel between Turkey and Brazil led Bill Keller to write an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled “The Revolt of the Rising Class.”1 The uprisings were “not born in desperation,” he wrote. Both Brazil and Turkey had experienced remarkable economic growth in a period of global crisis. They were “the latest in a series of revolts arising from the middle class—the urban, educated haves who are in some ways the principal beneficiaries of the regimes they now reject” and who had something to lose by taking to the streets in protest. “By the time the movements reached critical mass, they were about something bigger and more inchoate, dignity, the perquisites of citizenship, the obligations of power.” The revolts signified “a new alienation, a new yearning” that had to be addressed.


Architecture for a Change. Mamelodi POD, Pretoria, South Africa. 2013.

To be sure, the protests in Brazil and Turkey differed from the anti-austerity protests and strikes that dominated in the squares of Greece and Spain. They were different also from the eruptions of violence in London, Stockholm, and the Paris suburbs on the part of marginalized and immigrant populations. And all of these looked different from the “Occupy” movements in many Western cities and the pro-democracy uprisings that echoed from Tunis, Egypt, and Syria into Bosnia and Ukraine.

Yet there were also commonalities across the differences. They were, for example, urban centered, to some degree weakly cross-class, and even (initially at least) inter-ethnic (though that broke down as internal forces moved to divide and rule, and external powers exploited the discontents for geopolitical advantage, as in Syria and Ukraine). Urban disaffection and alienation were quite prominent among the triggers as was the universal outrage at rising social inequalities, escalating costs of living, and gratuitously violent police repressions.


Makeshift barricades in Kiev’s Independence Square, during the demonstrations known as Euromaidan. 2013.

None of this should have been surprising. Urbanization has increasingly constituted a primary site of endless capital accumulation that visits its own forms of barbarism and violence on whole populations in the name of profit. Urbanization has become the center of overwhelming economic activity on a planetary scale never before seen in human history. The Financial Times reports, for example, that “investment in real estate is the most important driver in the Chinese economy,” which in turn has been the main driver of the global economy throughout the world-wide crisis that began in 2007. “The building, sale and outfitting of apartments accounted for 23 percent of Chinese gross domestic product in 2013.” If we add in the expenditures on massive physical infrastructures (road, rail, public works of all kinds) then close to one half of the Chinese economy is taken up with urbanization. China has consumed more than half of the global steel and cement over the last decade. “In just two years, from 2011 to 2012, China produced more cement than the United States did in the entire twentieth century.”2

While extreme, these trends are not confined to China. Concrete is everywhere being poured at an unprecedented rate over the surface of planet earth. We are, in short, in the midst of a huge crisis—ecological, social, and political—of planetary urbanization without, it seems, knowing or even marking it.

None of this new development could have occurred without massive population displacements and dispossessions, wave after wave of creative destruction that has taken not only a physical toll but destroyed social solidarities, exaggerated social inequalities, swept aside any pretences of democratic urban governance, and has increasingly looked to militarized police surveillance and terror as its primary mode of social regulation. The unrest attaching to dispossession in China is unknowable but clearly widespread. Sociologist Cihan Tugal has written, “Real estate bubbles, soaring housing prices, and the overall privatization-alienation of common urban goods constitute the common ground of protests in as diverse places as the United States, Egypt, Spain, Turkey, Brazil, Israel, and Greece.”3 The rising cost of living, particularly for food, transportation, and housing, has made daily life increasingly difficult for urban populations. Food riots in North African cities were frequent and widespread even before the uprisings in Tunisia and Tahrir Square.


AFFECT-T. Bamboo micro-housing, Hong Kong. 2013.

This urbanization boom has had very little to do with meeting the needs of people. It has been all about absorbing surplus capital, sustaining profit levels, and maximizing the return on exchange values no matter what the use value demands might be. The consequences have often been irrational in the extreme. While there is a chronic shortage of affordable housing in almost every major city, their skylines are littered with empty condominiums for the ultra-rich whose main interest is in speculating in property values rather than constructing a settled life. In New York City, where half of the population has to live on less than $30,000 per year (as contrasted with the top 1 percent, who had an average annual income of $3.57 million per year according to tax records for 2012), there is an affordable housing crisis because nowhere is it possible to find a two-bedroom apartment for the $1,500 per month that a family of four should be spending on housing given an income of $30,000. In almost all the major cities in the U.S. the average expenditure on housing is way over the thirty percent of disposable income that is considered reasonable.4 The same applies to London, where there are whole streets of unoccupied mansions being held for purely speculative purposes. Meanwhile, the British government attempts to increase the supply of affordable housing by putting a bedroom tax on social housing for the most vulnerable sector of the population, resulting in, for example, the eviction of a widow living alone in a two bedroom council house. The empty bedroom tax has plainly been put on the wrong class, but governments these days appear to be singularly dedicated to feathering the nests of the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the disadvantaged. The same irrationality of empty dwellings in the midst of shortages of affordable housing can be found in Brazil, Turkey, Dubai, and Chile as well all the global cities of high finance such as London and New York. Meanwhile, budget austerities and reluctance to tax the wealthy given the overwhelming power of a now triumphant oligarchy means declining public services for the masses and further astonishing accumulation of wealth for the few.


Anti-government protesters behind barricades and on an excavator clash with riot police as they try to march to the office of Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul early June 3, 2013. Turkish protesters clashed with riot police into the early hours of Monday with some setting fire to offices of the ruling AK Party as the fiercest anti-government demonstrations in years entered their fourth day. Turkey’s streets were calm in the morning after a night of noisy protests and violence in major cities. (REUTERS)

It is in conditions of this sort that the propensity to political revolt begins to fester. Universal alienation from a burdensome daily life in the city is everywhere in evidence.5 But so are the innumerable attempts on the part of individuals, social groups, and political movements to find ways to construct a decent life in a decent living environment. The theme that there must be an alternative takes many forms and produces many quasi-solutions in seemingly infinite guises.

It is in this context that concerned groups of thinkers and practitioners are exploring alternatives, sometimes at small scales but in other instances, in the wake of urban revolts, to encourage the search for better forms of urban living. The do-it-yourself ethos of many social groups cast adrift from the prevailing dynamic of capital accumulation creates possibilities for alliances of urban thinkers and technicians with nascent social movements searching for a good or at least a better life. In Andean nations the ideal of “buen vivir” is implanted in national constitutions even as it conflicts with neoliberalizing practices on the ground.6 With massive populations deemed surplus and disposable in a context of perpetual land grabbing by developers and financiers, aided all too often by a corrupted state apparatus, many situations arise in which political battles take shape well before some fuse is lit to turn the growing propensity for street revolts into an active reality.

There are popular possibilities and potentialities emerging out of the crisis of planetary urbanization and its multiple discontents. This is so even in the face of the seemingly overwhelming force of endless capital accumulation growing at an unsustainable compound rate and in spite of the power across social classes being wielded by an increasingly visible and intransigent global oligarchy.7


Architecture and Vision. WarkaWater Tower, Ethiopia. 2012.

So what is it that might emerge from the popular revolts? There are confusing signs and signals but also some important clues. In Gezi Park, for example, it was not only the park that mattered. The “rising class” constructed instantaneous social solidarities, an economy of sharing and of collective social provision (food, health care, clothing), of caring for others (particularly the wounded and the frightened). The participants took evident delight in debating their common interests through democratic assemblies, launched into discussions that went on late into the night, and above all found a possible world of collective humor and cultural liberation that had previously seemed foreclosed. They opened alternative spaces, constructed a commons out of public spaces, and released the power of space to an alternative social and environmental purpose. They found each other as well as the park8; They identified a nascent social order in waiting.

This provides a clue as to what an alternative might look like. The spirit of many (though not all) of these protests and the spirit within the pro-democracy and Occupy movements is to go beyond “the new alienation” that Keller senses is so important to construct a less-alienating urban experience. Visceral resistance to the proposal to pour concrete over Gezi Park to build an imitation of an Ottoman barracks that would function as yet another shopping mall is in this sense emblematic of what the crisis of planetary urbanization is all about. Pouring more and more concrete in a mindless quest for endless growth is obviously no answer to current ills.

But the “rising class” is not all there is. In Turkey the mass of the Islamic working classes did not join in the revolt. They already possessed their own cultural (often anti-modernist) solidarities and hardened social relations (particularly regarding gender). They were not drawn into the emancipatory rhetoric of the protest movement because that movement did not address effectively its condition of massive material deprivation. They liked the combination of shopping malls and mosques that the ruling AKP party was building and did not care about the evident corruption surrounding the building boom as long as it was a source of jobs. The protest movement of Gezi was, as the subsequent municipal elections showed, not cross-class enough to last.


Csutoras & Liando. Kineforum Misbar Monas, temporary open-air theater in Jakarta. 2013.

There is no one answer to our predicaments. The urban experience under capitalism is turning barbaric as well as repressive. If the roots of this alienating experience lie in endless capital accumulation, then those roots must ultimately be severed. Lives and well-being must be rerooted in other modes of producing and consuming, while new forms of sociality must be constructed. The neoliberal ethos of isolated individualism and personal rather than social responsibility has to be overcome. The material needs of the masses must be met and combined with cultural emancipation. Taking back the streets in acts of collective protest can be a beginning. But it is only a beginning and cannot be an end in itself.9 Maximizing buen vivir for all in the city rather than the value of Gross Domestic Product for the benefit of the few is a great idea. It needs to be grounded in urban practices everywhere.

(With acknowledgements to Museum of Modern Art)

Pedro Gadanho’s  curatorial comments: http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2013/11/06/uneven-growth-tactical-urbanisms-for-expanding-megacities